I almost spilled my coffee when I opened the email offering free articles for FishingTackleRetailer.com. It wasn’t the first one I’d received that week. In fact, we get them all of the time. But this one was different. This one was signed by a fellow who coined himself the “Fishing Expert.”

Feel free to pick your jaw up off of the floor, same as I did.

With apologies to aspiring entrepreneurs and anglers, there is no such thing as a universal fishing expert. You know that. I know that. Kevin VanDam himself would tell you that. That this alleged expert was hoisting a carp in his signature photo only added to my suspicions that this offer for free content was not on the up-and-up. But what would possess someone to offer a publication—or any website—free content? The answer is rarely a kind heart and is most often a valuable search engine optimization tool called a backlink.

Backlinks are incredibly valuable and incredibly important in the world of search engine optimization. What is a backlink? Whenever your website links to another website within its content, that’s a backlink. Most often, these links are created in blogs and stories. By some estimates, these links are even more important than the keywords contained in your content. That’s because search engine bots like the ones deployed by Google rank the quality and content of backlinks to help determine your web page’s overall listing. 

What’s more, Google and other search engines measure not just the quantity but the quality of your backlinks. The more well regarded a website that links to you use, the more weight it carries in search engine results. So, if you’re a tackle store with a new blog post on ice fishing augers, a backlink from Fishing Tackle Retailer carries a lot of weight; but not as much weight as a link from National Geographic. Conversely, a backlink from an obscure website or a message board will generally carry less weight or none at all.

Search bots are designed to hunt out suspicious backlinks, but still generally assume that if websites are linking to another website it must be of value to the searcher.

If you’re a startup business trying to boost your search engine rankings, generating backlinks can equate to real web traffic and real revenue opportunities. And that’s why our website and maybe even your website gets regular pitches for “free” content. The caveat, almost always, is that you embed a backlink to the author’s own website.

This isn’t speculation, either. I have first-hand experience with this practice. Some of the most powerful marketing firms in the world deploy backlinking teams as key cogs in six and seven figure SEO budgets. In another life, I moonlighted for one such firm. Myself and the other writers on that team were paid a handsome penny, many times that of regular freelance rates, to become expert bloggers in the chosen field of a client. Sometimes, that meant we were writing about household chores; other times, we became babysitters; every now and then, we ventured into the recreational space.

At the top of our team was a manager whose job it was to create fictional personas with fictional backgrounds to pitch these backlink-laden stories to media outlets and blogs. This manager, perhaps not different than our carp-wielding fishing expert, spent most of his day spinning a content web of his own creation to boost the search engine rankings of high dollar clients.

Pitches looked a lot like this: 

Hi, Joe

My name is John Smith. I am a lifelong angler and aspiring blogger. Today, I happened to stumble on a blog on your website (link here), and I started thinking about ways that I could help you with more content like this. Based on my background, I feel like we could generate some unique ideas that would be of real interest to your customers and readers. Would you be interested in a series of free guest posts from me as I continue to build my brand?

Signed, 

Fishing Expert

What should you do if you receive an email like this? I recommend reading it with not just a grain, but a full bucket of salt. In today’s day and age, digital content usually has a brief life cycle of relevance on social media; but there is still long lasting power in the backlinks that web stories and blog posts create. Should you find yourself in the web of a “fishing expert” ask them directly about backlinking and make sure that you are fully aware of the arrangement they are proposing. 

Free content is free content after all. And depending on the needs of your business, it still may be a fit for you. The trick is to make sure that your expert really is an expert and that your deal is at least etched in ink, if not stone.

This column originally appeared in the January/February issue of Fishing Tackle Retailer, read the rest here.